Category Archives: ncaa basketball

Jim Boeheim’s values and college sport’s big bucks

Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim’s recent putdown of Greensboro, N.C., for having “no value” as a conference tournament site really was just the latest episode in college sports hypocrisy. Boeheim was reminding that his sport, on the Division I level, has nothing to do with proximity to campus life. Nothing to do with education. Nothing to do with the NCAA’s claim to be an amateur operation.

His typically prickly demeanor aside, Boeheim merely was verbalizing the state of affairs in his chosen racket. Just as conference realignments have severed schools’ geographical connections to chase bigger and better paydays, so do post-season tournaments increasingly gravitate toward the largest cities.

Because, as Willie Sutton supposedly said when asked why he robbed banks, “that’s where the money is.”

So the Atlantic Coast Conference, founded as a Carolina-centric league in the early 1950s, abandoned its traditional home in the burg that calls itself “Tournament Town” to play in New York’s Brooklyn borough this year. With Jim Boeheim’s hardy approval.

“Why do you think the Big Ten is coming to New York City?” Boeheim said of next year’s deal to bring that conference tournament from its Midwestern roots to Madison Square Garden. “It’s a good business decision. Everyone says this is all about business. The media centers, the recruiting centers, are Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and New York. How many players do their have in Greensboro?”

Boeheim, of course, is the crotchety fellow being paid roughly $2 million a year who has dismissed as “idiotic” any thought of sharing the wealth with college athletes. He is the guy who was suspended for nine games a year ago for failing to promote compliance of NCAA rules within his team for nearly a decade. He—and Syracuse basketball—are the embodiment of a gold-digging approach.

He noted that “Madison Square Garden made the Big East Conference” in the early 1980s, when Syracuse was a charter member of the league formed primarily to tap into the largest East Coast TV markets—$$$$: New York (St. John’s), D.C. (Georgetown), Boston (Boston College), Philadelphia (Villanova). The conference, in fact, mandated that its teams play the majority of their games in large public arenas, away from their campuses, to maximize ticket sales.

Long ago and in a galaxy far, far away, it was the ACC which concocted a post-season tournament to determine its league champion—and sole NCAA tournament participant. That was 1954, when only 22 teams made up the NCAA field. Between 1978 and 1980, the Big Dance grew from 32 to 48 teams, just when the Big East embraced the idea of a post-season tournament as a significant revenue stream. With as many as four of its original seven teams already guaranteed NCAA berths, its tournament essentially amounted to a series of exhibition games. But with large crowds paying top dollar at the self-proclaimed “World’s Most Famous Arena.”

As long ago as 1985, St. John’s Hall of Fame coach Lou Carnesecca admitted that the Big East tournament “means nothing. It’s nice for the league, to put a little money in the sack, to get the alumni together to discuss who’s better. It’s good because it makes a lot of noise…”

So isn’t it a bit ironic that none other than Jim Boeheim was grumbling back then that “any coach who feels he’s [already] qualified for the NCAA would rather not play a postseason tournament”?

Soon enough, he came around to the comforts of greed, until the Big East’s pursuit of further riches through a disorienting expansion of adding schools with a football emphasis led to its virtual demise. The conference eventually was forced to retreat to its old basketball model and Syracuse, meanwhile, ran away to the ACC’s greenbacks.

In Greensboro, many see justice in the fact that Boeheim and his Syracuse lads were immediately ousted by Miami from the ACC’s new Brooklyn stage in the first round, ending any hope of an NCAA bid. And that Syracuse subsequently was matched, in the consolation NIT’s first round, against the team from the University of North Carolina’s campus in Greensboro.

Surely there’s some value in that.

Beyond ESPN’s “Norm:” Mizzou’s J-School pests

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One aspect not addressed in “Norm,” ESPN’s spot-on new documentary of venerable University of Missouri basketball coach Norm Stewart, was Stewart’s relationship with the school’s student journalists. Understand that Mizzou, as home to the world’s first School of Journalism, churned out an unusual number of wet-behind-the-ears pests whom Stewart often accused of “disrupting my team.” Realize, too, that Stewart—devilishly clever and never above haggling to get an edge—knew how to get across his point about school loyalty to us practitioners of theoretical neutrality. Often by announcing that he was “declaring war on the local writers.”

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I was a reporter for the university-run Columbia Missourian when Stewart assumed the head coaching job in 1967, and therefore embodied so much of what annoyed him about J-School. “They’re in a learning situation,” he argued to me years later, “They don’t have any knowledge about history, or any interest in it. They’re like all kids. Live for today.”

Guilty. Unlike Stewart, who hailed from the tiny farming community of Shelbyville, near Tom Sawyer’s Hannibal, and had been a two-sport star at Mizzou in the 1950s, most J-School students are virtual foreigners, drawn by J-School’s reputation and not steeped in such matters as Missouri’s established hate for neighboring Kansas. I went to high school in New Mexico, and had classmates from California, New York, Iowa, Virginia, Oklahoma, Illinois and other distant points.

It further rankled Stewart, and justifiably so, that the state’s media centers of St. Louis and Kansas City were slow to acknowledge the rapid ascent of his teams into perennial contenders in the old Big Eight Conference.

In 1982, Mizzou opened the season with 19 consecutive wins and briefly was ranked No. 1, at last in line for some national attention, but the instant it lost its first game, NBC cancelled a planned feature on the team. “I guess I ought to go out and lose five or six games so I can get on TV all the time like UCLA and Notre Dame,” was Stewart’s sarcastic reaction.

It was that February that I maneuvered a Newsday assignment to return to campus, as a ploy to to introduce our Long Island readers to “Stormin’ Norman,” who had created an image throughout the Midwest of a cantankerous soul. Regularly wrangling with officials (and sometimes fans) as he stalked the sideline, Stewart inspired opposing fans to serenade him with “Sit down, Norm!” chants.

Yet, up close, Stewart could be as charming as he was caustic, with an open, sly sense of humor, a crooked smile and tales to tell.

When I visited in ’82, Mizzou was days from a nationally televised match-up of Top 10 teams at Georgetown, which was riding the all-encompassing skills of freshman giant Patrick Ewing. Stewart sat in his office, grinning mischievously, and gilded his reputation as an agitator by relating how he once spliced together a film of what he considered the worst officials’ calls and shipped it to the Big Eight office. He told of a Notre Dame fan who had been badgering him, and how he considered mailing the man a rosary and a snuffed-out candle with the note, “You have caused me to lose my Faith.”

That evening, after Mizzou’s game against Iowa State, Stewart invited me to his home to continue the conversation. He addressed his occasionally brusque coaching techniques and manic attention to defense with self-deprecation: “Players sometimes say, ‘Coach, how do you stop that [offensive move].’ I say, ‘As coaches, we don’t do that. We just identify problems.’”

He spoke fondly of his high school coach in Shelbyville, C.J. Kessler, who originally made a name for himself in basketball-mad Indiana but, as Stewart told it, happened to marry a Shelbyville girl and, when Kessler came to visit the in-laws, “some of the local boys took him out for golf and possibly drinks, and the next morning he wakes up as superintendent of schools and basketball coach. And his wife as the school’s English teacher.”

It was about then I felt the time ripe for a little good-natured J-School revenge, recalling that Mizzou’s coaching job had become open, following the 1966-67 season, not long after I had scrutinized the failures of Bob Vanatta in a column for our student newspaper, The Maneater.

Vanatta’s team had lost 43 of 49 games the previous two seasons. Might I, a smart-aleck sophomore possibly abusing the power of the pen, have hastened Vanatta’s departure—and therefore Stewart’s shot at the job that came to shape his legacy? (He stayed for 32 seasons, won 634 games and eight conference titles and appeared in 22 post-season tournaments. He also survived colon cancer and founded the Coaches vs. Cancer organization that has raised more than $87 million since 1993. All of that is in the “Norm” documentary.)

I don’t recall Stewart’s reaction, although the hurling of rotten tomatoes would not have been out of line. I fully suspect he grasped the jest factor.

And here’s the irony:

In the spring of 1969, months short of graduation, I had arranged to interview Stewart about his landing of prize 6-foot-7 recruit John Brown, the future second-team All-American and eight-year NBA veteran. Stewart was in the hospital receiving treatment for a bad back, but invited me to his bedside to detail the lengthy process of romancing Brown and keeping him away from the likes of despised Kansas U.

That drawn-out struggle, the neighborhood rivalry, the name of the lad whose physical presence was being fought over, put me in mind of Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic 1928 poem, “John Brown’s Body,” about the radical abolitionist in Civil War days.

(John Brown's body in motion)

(John Brown’s body in motion)

It was a cheesy premise for a column, but a visit to the university library unearthed lines in the poem that spoke to Mizzou’s basketball situation, of gaining a real edge on the bitter adversary across the state line only two years into Stewart’s tenure:

    The papers praise, but the recruiting is slow,

    The bonds sell badly, the grind of the war goes on—

And:

    Go down, John Brown,

    Go down, John Brown,

    Go down, John Brown, and set that people free!

And:

    Kansas, bleeding Kansas,

    I hear her in her pain.

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The vice president of the United Press International wire service happened to be in town for Mizzou’s annual Journalism Week and saw the John Brown column. He offered me a position in UPI’s sports department in New York City.

So it was Stewart who generated the opportunity to get me a job.

P.S. In 2008, when Missouri’s J-School celebrated its Centennial with three days of forums and exhibits, Stewart was in the audience for a panel discussion on the ethics and future of sports journalism. It was good to see him. The war was over a long time ago.

 

 

Upsets are the madness in March

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Bless the NCAA tournament’s custom of upsets, all of which are great things (except when they victimize your team). If it weren’t for Middle Tennessee State ambushing pre-tournament co-favorite Michigan State, Yale waylaying Baylor and Stephen F. Austin bushwhacking West Virginia over this year’s first weekend, where would the madness be?

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Each March, when the traditional rich-getting-richer powerhouses—the Kansases, Kentuckys, North Carolinas and Dukes—set about chasing yet another national championship and bigger television payday, the real charm is provided by the underprivileged. It is the presence of gypsies in the palace, unlikely to assume the throne but meanwhile smashing some of the fine dinner China, that expands the audience.

According to the 538.com Web site, the 2012 first-round victory by No. 15 seed Norfolk State over my alma mater, No. 2 Missouri, remains the biggest upset since the Big Dance was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. That’s a moment I choose not to celebrate. Still, what is so appealing about the tournament is the sudden, sky-high growth by previously perceived pipsqueaks. Apparent finders of magic beans.

So, no offense to Norfolk State, but among my favorites were Valparaiso, George Mason and, 34 years ago, Middle Tennessee State’s first iteration of its NCAA fairy tale. On that occasion, when the tournament still was limited to 48 teams, with 12 seeds per regional, I had been dispatched to Nashville by Newsday in anticipation of a second-round showdown between in-state powers Kentucky and Louisville, their first since 1959.

Louisville, as the Mideast Region’s No. 3 seed, had a first-round bye, awaiting No. 6 Kentucky’s assumed romp over the lightly regarded No. 11 seed snidely referred to as “Middle Tennis Shoes State.” Kentucky’s advance past Middle Tennessee was so likely that I left my portable computer in my motel room, across the Vanderbilt campus from the arena, with no plans of reporting on the game.

Naturally, Middle Tennessee won, 50-44—its first-ever NCAA tournament victory—prompting my mayday phone call to the office and a mile sprint back to my writing machine, on deadline, with the lead sentence becoming obvious as I ran: “Never plan ahead.”

Middle Tennessee’s coach then was an aw-shucks fellow named Stan Simpson, who recalled growing up in Georgia, “sitting up nights and listening to Cawood Ledford broadcast the Kentucky games on WHAS out of Louisville. Lord, I never thought I’d see this day.”

In 1998, Valparaiso—a small, Lutheran-affiliated school in Indiana so little known that its proper pronunciation of Val-puh-RAY-so regularly was miscast in the original Spanish, Val-puh-RIZE-zo—rolled into the Sweet 16 despite its No. 13 seed. Against No. 3 Ole Miss in the first round, Valpo was trailing by two points when it in-bounded the ball under the Ole Miss basket with 2.5 seconds to play, executed a 60-foot pass, then a quick flip to Bryce Drew, whose 23-foot three-point basket shocked all concerned. Valparaiso in a most delightful way.

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The personal downside to that uplifting development was that the crushed Ole Miss lads were coached by Robert Evans, a former high school classmate of mine in Hobbs, N.M. But that was offset, on a trip to Valparaiso the next week, when I encountered a community beside itself with giddiness. Valparaiso is the home of gourmet popcorn maker Orville Redenbacher, and its annual Popcorn Ball is described as the town’s “adult prom,” the biggest social event on the calendar. Yet that year, even Valparaiso’s mayor skipped the Ball to be in St. Louis for the university’s Sweet Sixteen game.

And Valparaiso’s coach, Homer Drew—Bryce’s father—told of how his son had turned down an offer from perennial NCAA tournament contender Syracuse to stay home with his dad’s team, in spite of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim’s incredulous response: “Don’t you want to play in the Big Time?”

“When I was an assistant of Dale Brown at LSU,” Homer Drew said then, “I got to experience the Big Time. I’ve been coaching long enough to understand that fame is fleeting. I’m thrilled for my team, but you won’t be here next week. TV won’t be here. I’m just very blessed to have shared these four years with Bryce, because when fame is gone, family and friends will be there. That is most important.”

They’re still together at Valpo, too—Homer as associate athletic director and Bryce, since 2012, his successor as head coach.

Then there was the George Mason experience from 2006, when the school’s basketball team, an at-large addition to the NCAA field and seeded 11th in its regional, levitated right to the Final Four by knocking off No. 6 Michigan State, No. 3 (and defending champion) North Carolina, No. 7 Wichita State and No. 1 UConn.

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That run not only was a SportsCenter sensation and an underdog’s public relations windfall, but prompted then-university president Alan Merten to conflate the achievement of George Mason (the school team) with George Mason (the man). The latter, already dead 99 years before basketball was invented, “was the true bracket buster,” Merten gleefully informed me. One of the original American revolutionaries, a vigorous opponent of unrestricted power, an advocate for the little guy, Mason wrote Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, the blueprint for the U.S. Bill of Rights. And he told his neighbor and friend, George Washington, that he could not bring himself to sign the U.S. Constitution because it lacked a stipulation to eliminate slavery.

“We’re pesky,” president Merten said then. “I love that word that’s being used for our basketball team. As a university, too, we’re annoying, like George Mason was. We’re aggressive. We go by the rules but we don’t do it the way it’s always been done.”

This is the beauty of March Madness: The insistence that we revisit assumptions.

March Madness…and Stony Brook

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When Steve Pikiell arrived on Eastern Long Island’s Stony Brook University campus in 2005, embarking on his first season as a head basketball coach in Division I, he had three small shelves installed in his office, one slightly higher than the other.

The lowest shelf was reserved for the game ball that would commemorate his first victory. (That souvenir appeared months later, on Jan. 2, 2006, in Pikiell’s 10th game, after one of only four victories in 28 games that season.) The next shelf up was set aside for Stony Brook’s first league title in Division I. (That was occupied on Feb. 24, 2010, with a victory over America East Conference regular-season runner-up Vermont.)

The top shelf was left empty for “that NCAA ball,” Pikiell said shortly before his teams reached the first of five conference tournament finals in the last six years in 2011. “When the guys come in here and tell me how hard they’re working,” he said then, “I just point to that shelf and say, ‘If you’re working that hard, we’d have that ball up there already.’”

So now—not so terribly long after Pikiell envisioned what certainly seemed to be a stretch in 2005—his team has met that goal with a first-round NCAA Tournament date against the University of Kentucky.

A bit of history, in terms of context, is in order, since the match-up is widely construed as Stony Brook fighting with rocks against Kentucky bazookas.

First, Kentucky (where the emphasis on college basketball long has been so substantial that it has bordered on obscene): Kentucky is the most successful college basketball operation in history—more NCAA tournament appearances (55), wins (120), Sweet Sixteen (41) and Elite Eight (36) appearances than any other school, with eight national titles that rank second only to UCLA’s 11.

Kentucky also was caught up in the point-shaving scandals of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

By 1924, Kentucky was playing in the largest basketball arena in the South, seating 2,800, moved into an 11,500-seat coliseum in 1950 and now plays in 23,000-seat Rupp Arena, named for 42-year, 880-game-winning coach Adolph Rupp.

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Stony Brook, in humble comparison, has been playing in a relatively palatial 4,000-seat on-campus arena the past two seasons after years in what resembled a high school box—1,700-seat Pritchard Gymnasium. Originally the State University College of Long Island, founded in 1957—shortly before Kentucky won its fourth national title—Stony Brook didn’t begin playing intercollegiate basketball (in non-scholarship Division III) until 1960, didn’t settle on its current campus until 1962 and didn’t move to Division I until 1999.

The first time I did any reporting for Newsday on Stony Brook history, I found far more emphasis on its health sciences and medical school than on its athletic prowess (nothing wrong with that), with even a quirky nod to its 1973 graduate school alumnus Stephen Kaplan, who became the world’s foremost vampirologist, founder of the Vampire Research Center. Kaplan conducted a world-wide 1980s demographic study in which he was curious to hear from people who had seen vampires, been attacked by vampires, knew vampires, claimed to be vampires, wished to correspond with vampires or wished to become vampires. (Kaplan, known as a skeptic of the infamous Amityville Horror hauntings of the mid-1970s, died in 1995.)

18 Nov 1977 --- Original caption: Dr. Stephen Kaplan, a Vampireologist among his other talents, sits in his Elmhurst, Queens, home 11/18, surrounded by artifacts of his interests- including a devil in the painting upper right. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Stephen Kaplan

Anyway, when Stony Brook’s administrators concluded that big-time athletics was a reasonable endeavor to generate publicity and school spirit and opted for sports scholarships, they first hired veteran Canisius and Fordham coach Nick Macarchuk, then opted for Pikiell, a former captain of UConn teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight.

There was no sexy heritage of Stony Brook basketball greatness when the 38-year-old Pikiell arrived. Nothing like Kentucky’s folklore. Then again, I am reminded of what celebrated coach Larry Brown told me when he was coaching at Kansas in the mid-1980s. Brown, now at SMU, led 10 professional teams and got perennial powers UCLA and Kansas to the NCAA title game. Yet he made the apparently counterintuitive point that “tradition is who’s been in the Final Four the last four years. The top recruits…think of tradition as what’s on the tube right now….”

True enough. To some extent, the way it works is that high school big shots want to be on ESPN or the networks, those arbiters of tradition. Yet Pikiell somehow kept selling recruits on that cramped, dinky Pritchard gym for years, gave them a Nostradamus view of a future NCAA Tournament status, and crafted some nice, entertaining teams.

So Stony Brook isn’t Kentucky. So what? My occasional dealings with Pikiell were of a committed, respectful, optimistic gentleman. A top-shelf guy.